Coarctation of the Aorta (COA)
What is coarctation of the aorta?
Coarctation of the aorta (COA) is a heart defect that is present at birth (congenital).
It means the aorta is narrower than it should be. The aorta is the large artery that
carries oxygen-rich (red) blood from the left ventricle to the body. This narrowing
means that less oxygen-rich blood is sent to the body.
The amount of narrowing can vary. A child with greater narrowing of the aorta will
have more symptoms. The symptoms will also be seen at an early age. In some cases,
coarctation is seen in infancy. In others, it may not be seen until school-age or
teenage years. COA may be diagnosed in infants, school-age children, or teens. It
is more commonly seen in males. There is an increased chance of having the condition
if another family member has it. It also occurs more often in certain genetic syndromes
such as Turner Syndrome.
Coarctation of the aorta is usually associated with other cardiac defects, with a
bicuspid aortic valve being a commonly associated defect.
What causes COA?
Most of the time, COA has no known cause. Some heart defects present at birth have
a genetic link. This means they happen more often in certain families. There is an
increased risk in families with a history of left-sided heart obstructive lesions.
What are the symptoms of COA?
These are the most common symptoms of coarctation of the aorta:
- Pale skin
- Heavy or fast breathing
- Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)
- Poor feeding or eating
- Poor weight gain
- Cold feet or legs
- Weak pulses in the feet, or no pulses in the feet
- Blood pressure in the arms that is much higher than the blood pressure in the legs
- Chest pain
- Pain in lower legs with walking (claudication)
Mild narrowing may not cause symptoms at all. The healthcare provider may find high
blood pressure. Or he or she may hear an abnormal sound (heart murmur) when listening
to your child's heart with a stethoscope. Adults with the condition are at increased
risk of intracranial aneurysms. This is a weakening and ballooning of blood vessels
in the brain. This is especially the case if they have high blood pressure.
The symptoms of COA can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees
his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is COA diagnosed?
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He
or she will give your child a physical exam. The provider may refer you to a pediatric
cardiologist is a doctor with special training to treat heart problems in children.
The cardiologist will examine your child and listen to his or her heart and lungs.
Your child may also have tests such as:
- Chest X-ray. A chest X-ray may show an enlarged heart or other changes caused by COA.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG records the electrical activity of the heart. It can find abnormal rhythms
(arrhythmias) and heart muscle damage.
- Echocardiogram (echo). An echo uses sound waves to make a moving picture of the heart and heart valves. Most aortic
coarctations are diagnosed by echocardiography.
- Cardiac catheterization (cath). A heart cath uses a thin, flexible tube (catheter) that is moved through the blood
vessels into the heart. Dye is used to get a clear picture of the heart and aorta.
Catheterization may also be used to correct the narrowing.
- CT scan. CT can make detailed pictures of the aorta and show the area of narrowing.
- MRI. MRI makes detailed pictures of the heart and aorta. It can clearly show where the
narrowing is and how large it is.
How is COA treated?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also
depend on how severe the condition is.
COA is treated by fixing the narrowed vessel. It may be fixed by:
- Cardiac cath. During the procedure, your child is given medicine to help him or her relax (sedation).
The healthcare provider puts a catheter through a blood vessel to the narrowed part
of the aorta. A balloon at the tip of the catheter is inflated to stretch the area
open. The provider may put a small metal mesh tube (stent) in the narrowed area to
keep the aorta open. Your child will usually need to stay overnight in the hospital.
- Surgery. Your child will be given sleep medicine (general anesthesia). The surgeon will make
a cut (incision) into your child's chest. The location of the incision will depend
on the extent of narrowing of the aorta as well as if there are additional defect
that need to be fixed during the same surgery. The surgeon will cut out the narrowed
area or make it larger and either connect the 2 ends of the aorta together. Or in
some instances, the surgeon will have to use additional nearby tissue or patch material
to make the aorta longer.
What are the complications of COA ?
If untreated, COA causes several problems:
- The left ventricle, which pumps blood through the aorta and to the body, becomes weak
- Blood pressure is too high in the upper body and too low in the lower body
- Kidneys don't work as they should
- Disease of the coronary arteries
- Infection of the heart and blood vessel wall
- The aorta or other arteries can tear causing uncontrolled bleeding or stroke
Living with COA
All children with COA will need to have the defect fixed. Some infants will be very
sick and need care in the intensive care unit before the procedure. In some cases,
a child may need emergency repair. Children who have few symptoms will have scheduled
repairs. Most children who have had a COA repair will live healthy lives. Activity
levels, appetite, and growth should return to normal in time.
After the repair, your child's cardiologist may recommend your child take antibiotics
before surgeries or procedures, such as dental work. This is done to prevent infection.
As the child grows, the aorta may again become narrow. If this happens, another balloon
procedure or surgery may be done.
Controlling blood pressure is very important. Your child's blood pressure may be higher
after aortic coarctation repair. He or she may need to take medicines to help lower
Your child will need regular follow-up care at a center offering pediatric or adult
congenital cardiac care throughout life.
When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Call your child's healthcare provider right away if you notice changes in your child's
normal symptoms. For example, your child might have more trouble breathing or is less
able to eat.
Key points about COA
- COA is a congenital heart defect. It means the aorta is narrower than it should be.
- Symptoms can vary from mild to more severe. They may include trouble breathing, poor
weight gain, poor feeding, and pale skin.
- COA can be fixed by cardiac catheterization or surgery.
- After surgery, most children live healthy lives.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child.
Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose
for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important
if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.